When “House of the Dragon” premieres on HBO later this month, it marks a return to all the familiar tenets of Westeros made famous by “Game of Thrones”: Sex, violence, and, of course, dragons. But the prequel series based on George R. R. Martin’s “Fire & Blood” centers something different from “Thrones”: A pivotal relationship between two women.
“House of the Dragon” is about the Targaryen family, war in the seven kingdoms, and the Iron Throne itself, but it is in a very real sense it’s about Alicent Hightower (played in early episodes by Emily Carey and as an adult by Olivia Cooke) and Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock; Emma D’Arcy). As children and teens the girls are bosom buddies and inseparable at court, but the trailer shows them at loggerheads once Rhaenyra contests the order of succession.
“We didn’t even know what the project was, let alone the characters,” Alcock told IndieWire in a joint interview with her costar ahead of the season premiere. “It was all fake scripts and fake people. I found that it was ‘Thrones’ by the second audition, and then we didn’t really know how big our parts were or who they were until later on in the rehearsal process.”
“I found out that it was ‘Thrones’ before my last audition, when my team got that I was meeting [creators] Ryan [J. Condal] and Miguel [Sapochnik],” Carey said. “My management also represent Olivia Cooke so they clocked it like, ‘Okay, we get it. You’re young Olivia.’ But [I] didn’t know how significant a role was going to be until we got the scripts.”
Alcock and Carey will portray the young princess and her friend for multiple episodes, but they didn’t end up working with D’Arcy and Cooke to flesh out the characters.
“It’s not like we were advised not to, but it became clear very early on that it was a choice,” Carey recalled. “10 years is such a long time in anyone’s life, especially when it goes from being a young girl into a fully-fledged woman. There’s a lot of growing up to do, but also circumstance and the relationships change so much that it’s like almost like we’re playing completely different people.”
Physical and character traits carry through between the timelines, but for the most part the four actors trusted Condal and Sapochnik to steer their story in the right direction. Alcock and Carey read “Fire & Blood” to prepare, but it isn’t nearly as exhaustive as the seven-novel “A Song of Ice and Fire”; young Alicent is mentioned only once and briefly, while Rhaenyra’s pages focus more on her adulthood than her teen years. Alcock and Carey found the characters through trial and error as the show’s scripts built out their characters.
“Your best friend as a 14-year-old girl is probably the closest you’ve ever been to any one singular person and probably the closest you will be to any one singular person for a long while,” Carey said. “It’s sort of toeing the line between platonic and romantic, just an all-consuming adoration and love for that one person. That’s part of why they brought the characters in early, to show that love — which is what makes the demise of their relationship so much more heartbreaking.”
“‘House of the Dragon’ really creates a nuanced conversation of misogyny,” Alcock said. “We don’t only explore it through a level of women being shut down and the patriarchy, but also go in-depth about the internalized misogyny that women are constantly faced with, and the competitiveness. Alicent and Rhaenyra’s relationship is at the forefront of that conversation.”
For fans of this world who haven’t read “Fire & Blood,” “House of the Dragon” has some unfamiliar names, Hightower among them. The family is present but mostly peripheral throughout “Thrones” and “A Song of Ice and Fire,” but during this era the Hightowers are one of the most powerful houses in Westeros. Alicent’s father Otto (Rhys Ifans) is Hand of the King, with eyes on his daughter entering the Targaryen family.
“The Hightowers are very passionate people. Their sigil has a flame on it and I think that’s poignant,” Carey said. “With Otto and Alicent, in all the scenes where they should be holding each other and crying and saying that they love each other, they don’t — it’s an argument. As soon as they feel some sort of vulnerability, immediately the wall goes up and they start to argue, but that’s how they show each other love. It’s a communication barrier, and I think that’s key to the Hightowers in general.”
The show also finds the Targaryens at the height of their power, centuries into ruling the seven kingdoms as dragon riders. In “A Storm of Swords,” Martin writes: “Madness and greatness are two sides of the same coin. Every time a new Targaryen is born… the gods toss the coin in the air and the world holds its breath to see how it will land.”
“This show specifically really explores those two dynamics,” Alcock said. “If either of those sides of the coin are ever sat on the throne, what would that mean for the kingdom?”
“To be a part of this is just incredible,” Carey said when discussing the role of women in the show. “We have some very fierce women in this cast. I remember the scene in the trailer when Milly just looks down the camera lens. I remember [standing] up there, watching her do this, and getting goosebumps all over. And that is when I knew that this show was different.
“This show is power,” Cared continued, squeezing Alcock’s arm in excitement. “And this woman is power.”
“House of the Dragon” premieres August 21 on HBO.